The Dangerous Gray Area of “Casual Drinker” + 9 Ways I Stopped Binge Drinking
For the overdrinkers who are ready to stop
I opened my eyes to a gray fall morning.
It took about 30 seconds for me to register the night before, the cause of my pounding headache, the nausea bubbling up in my throat, the strange knife edge pain in my solar plexus.
But when I did it was like everything in the room implicated me in my shame.
The mid-morning light glowing around the edges of the blackout curtains. The fact that I was alone in bed, my husband having woken up long before me, without a hangover, no doubt.
Scenes from the night before slammed into my chest.
The two double vodka drinks, the 6 or 7 White Claws following. The hallucinogens I had decided to take after the White Claws.
The flight of stairs I fell down and the laughter of those who heard the crash.
How I sobbed for hours afterwards, my trip — the second of my life — suddenly turning south.
My sweet husband, sober and certainly shocked by my behavior, taking care of me while I sobbed, holding me tight while sorrow rolled through me in waves.
I rolled over in bed that morning, a shock of pain coursing up my right rib cage, into my neck, which felt loose but stiff at the same time. Whiplash from my fall.
I hung there in bed, suspended between the misery of getting up, and shame-guilt-hopelessness feeling that was as deep and dark as an oil slick.
This moment always scared me the most. It was always this suspension in time — the one between sleep and getting on with my life with a hangover — during which I wished I could just fall asleep and never wake up.
It was the pinprick of panic and dread that I felt growing in my mind every time I got drunk. Like I would never stop. Why couldn’t I just have one drink socially like all those other “grown-ups”?
I painfully pushed the covers aside, and slowly shifted out of bed, equally trying not to think about the night before, and running a train of harrasing thoughts through my head about what an asshole I was.
And so it went.
According to an article in NPR, a federally sponsored study found that ‘high risk’ drinking in women (four or more drinks a day on a weekly basis) rose by 58 percent between 2002 and 2013, and 65 percent in other adults. Among women, alcohol abuse and dependence rose 83.7 percent.
Alcohol culture has blossomed, with craft cocktail bars popping up everywhere, craft beer culture on the rise, and younger generations falling head over heels for wine. Drinking is not only becoming a nightly affair, it’s also a mark of sophistication, youth, and success.
As a culture, we are drinkers.
It makes it all so normal, drinking a bottle of wine of a Wednesday, having 3 or 4 craft cocktails at happy hour on Thursday, going out for a late night on Friday, the house party on Saturday, followed by bloody mary and mimosa brunch on Sunday.
The gray area of high-functioning drinkers is widening as alcohol culture becomes normalized and celebrated.
I found myself trapped in this gray area. I had a social life, in which all my friends drank heavily, functioned in their daily lives, and went back to the bottle the following night without blinking.
I wondered if anyone else felt as hopeless and shameful about alcohol in the morning light as I did?
I didn’t consider myself an alcoholic. I wasn’t taking nips off the bottle in the morning to stave off the shakes. I didn’t crave alcohol in a sense that my life would end if I didn’t have a drink.
My life wasn’t crumbling. I had a good job, made my rent and was even paying off my debt and saving a little on the side. I wasn’t exactly making a lot of forward progression on all those dreams I had, but I wasn’t in a sinking ship either.
I was just drinking to “wind down,” to enjoy my life, to soak in the summer surrounded by good friends, to let loose and not take life so seriously. I just wanted to relax and enjoy like the rest of them. Like those women on Instagram who seem to have it all together.
Drinking their fancy drinks on some well-maintained garden veranda, basking in a glowy sunset surrounded by their beautiful friends, no doubt talking about how amazing their lives are. “This must be the place, am I right?” “Cheers guys, you all are seriously the best.”
My transition from nightly drinker, to occasional drinker, and soon to be non-drinker, took a few years.
I wasn’t as into my personal development as I am now. I was stuck in an environment and lifestyle that celebrated nightly wine. But I learned a lot on the journey, and I’d like to share it with you.
Because it’s wildly important.
Alcohol is killing us. Alcohol culture, specifically marketing targeted at women is on the rise, and is leading to increased ‘high risk’ drinking, which this study suggests is becoming a public health crisis given the high risk of disease and psychiatric problems associated with alcohol.
Regardless of the data, if you have shame around your drinking habits, if you feel like your life could be better without alcohol, if you feel guilty, or worried about your alcohol consumption, it’s time to evaluate it and do something about it.
Sobriety is a personal journey. One that is punctuated by failure, by slip-ups and confusion. I caught myself arguing for years, “if that girl can drink, be that successful, and be living a life that I want to, then I can drink too.”
I have still taken it too far on my journey to sobriety, getting blackout drunk and then vomiting all morning. I think that transparency is important here, because this journey isn’t a straight line.
We never know what’s on the other side of the photos, and the curated Instagram feeds.
Unless we ask, we might not ever know that our friends are laying in bed in the morning getting sucked into hopelessness and fear alongside their pounding head.
So this is for those of you caught in the confusing grey area of alcohol culture, for those of you who want out but don’t know how to navigate life on the other side of alcohol, here are some ways I got out.
This is for those of you who are falling deeper into shame, and don’t know what to do.
To be clear: if you think you’re addicted to alcohol, please seek professional help. This article is geared toward those who are struggling with over-drinking, but not necessarily addiction.
Everyone’s journey is different. Here’s how I did it:
1. Start Small
“The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones” — Confucius
It’s easy to wake up from a hangover and say never again. It’s easy to react to your habit in a judgemental, shamed way. Especially if you’ve been feeling shameful or guilty about your habit for a long time.
But I suggest you start small. Alcoholics Anonymous talks about not thinking about having to stay sober forever, but instead thinking about being sober for the next minute. The next hour. The next day.
If you want to start getting your consumption in check, start by not drinking for 1 night out of the week. Or not drinking during the work week. Make it doable. Make it feel small, and do it because you want to, not because you’re shaming yourself into it.
Work your way up from there after a few weeks. Take incremental, doable and bit-sized steps towards sobriety. And then, do a sober month, and check out this article I wrote called 21 Ways Being Sober for 21 Days has Improved My Life.
2. Find your ‘why’
“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how” — Nietzsche
Nothing makes me happier than waking up without a hangover in the early morning, and going for a run, reading, journaling, taking time for me. When I was drinking, I would always hit snooze, and then rush off to work in a frazzle, without giving myself any personal time.
When I stopped drinking during the work week, I was able to start adding in all these priorities I wanted to have, but couldn’t because of the hangovers.
I started working out. I started to learn photography, and would fall into a kind of meditative state going on walks in the mornings with my dog, camera and coffee, taking photos for an hour before work.
I started to journal, and to paint in the mornings before my 9am job.
Getting to do me, to do those hobbies I wanted to have but never ‘had the time for,’ and being able to dive into my passions every morning before work completely transformed my life.
Now I’m running a coaching business, I’m getting to take photos, I’m writing, I’m prioritizing all those things that used to come after alcohol.
Find your why. What’s one thing you could do more of if it wasn’t for the happy hours and hangovers? Start doing it on those days you don’t drink.
This lets you take something away that used to be your focus — alcohol — and add in something wonderfully rewarding and enjoyable. This makes it feel less like ‘punishment’ and more like getting your life back.
3. Tell People What You’re Doing
“A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is a reality” — Yoko Ono
It’s one thing to want to stop drinking in private, it’s another thing entirely to tell the people in your life that you’re actively cutting back.
This makes a massive difference in your success.
When you privately want to stop drinking, you’re still living within the same relationships and environments that are leading you to drinking in the first place.
It’s easy to justify drinking when no one is holding you accountable, when you haven’t changed the dynamics of stating you’re no longer drinking.
This was a hurdle for me, because if I told people about wanting to be sober, I actually had to do it.
If you don’t tell people, you’re basically planning to fail.
So tell someone, tell your friends you’re cutting back, you’re only drinking 1 night a week, or whatever goal you have set. Make sure it’s a concrete goal (ie. I’m not drinking during the work week) instead of vague (ie. I’m cutting back on my drinking). That way it’s discernable and measurable for you and everyone else around you.
4. Stay away from people that don’t respect #3
“You’re the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with” — Jim Rohn
When you decide to get sober, you will find out who your real friends are. Period.
Which can be scary, because a lot of our identity is wrapped up in our friend circle. When we lose friends we wonder who we are.
This is a hard, yet incredibly powerful place to be, because you get to decide who you want to be (sober or drunk? A special occasion drinker or an every night drinker?).
They say you are the 5 people you are closest to, and if your 5 closest friends are all heavy drinkers, you likely will be too. When you decide to stop drinking as much, or all together, that’s going to threaten the heavy drinkers in your life.
Because suddenly they’re going to compare their habits to yours. They going to assume you’re judging them or that you think they have a problem. They’re going to get uncomfortable when they’re having a cocktail and you order a soda water. Because it forces them to see themselves and their habits.
People occasionally see this as confrontational.
And, if it makes them really uncomfortable, one or two things might happen:
- They’ll stop inviting you places, and your friendship will dissolve
- They’ll be aggressive about your decision in some way, either giving you shit, guilting you into drinking, violating your decision by offering you drinks even though you’ve told them you’re not drinking, or getting confrontational and angry about your choice
- Note that neither of these things has anything to do with you, and everything to do with how they’re feeling about themselves.
Pay attention to the people who make you feel good, happy, excited and motivated about your decision, and those people that make you feel uncomfortable, uneasy, drained, angry, or triggered. Stay away from the people that make you feel the latter.
And know that there is a wide world of folks out there who aren’t drinkers and that like to do the same things you do. Maybe these are your people, and maybe the people you thought were your people, aren’t anymore. That’s ok.
5. Stop judging yourself for the things you’ve done wrong, and the mistakes you make
“You cannot go on a path of self-criticism and expect to find joy at the end” — Brooke Castillo
Brooke Castillo often talks about how life feels like crap half the time, and amazing the other half, regardless of who you are, what you’ve accomplished, or how much money you make.
It’s just the deal we get for being human.
So if you’re going to feel uncomfortable half the time, why would you stack more discomfort on top of that by judging/shaming/guilting yourself about the choices you’ve made?
Have you considered that maybe this habit of shaming yourself is what is making you want to drink in the first place?
This has taken me a long time to unravel, and it’s still something I struggle with (and probably will struggle with for my whole life).
Every time I would slip up and binge on booze, or drink multiple days in a row, even after I decided to really stop drinking, I would immediately react with a proclamation that I was going to stop drinking for 45 days, or two months, or never again or or or. . .
I was usually hungover when I would make these proclamations, and I was definitely doing it from a place of shame and judgement.
How successful do you think I was in staying sober when I was trying to do so from a place of shame? If you guessed NOT successful, you’re right.
When I decided that I was worthy, loveable, and enough even if I screwed up, and no matter how badly I screwed up, it got easier to stay sober. Because I wasn’t adding extra shame into my life, that made me want to buffer my emotions with booze in the first place.
6. Start working through the discomfort you’re going to feel half the time
“If you hold back on the emotions — if you don’t allow yourself to go all the way through them — you can never get to being detached, you’re too busy being afraid” — Mitch Albom
The reason people buffer with alcohol, drugs, sex, food, whatever, is because it feels better to get the dopamine hit from those things than it does to feel whatever shitty feeling we’re running from.
Unfortunately, they didn’t teach us growing up that we are going to feel bad, and that instead of “bucking up” we should actually let ourselves feel like shit, and then work those feelings out of our bodies in healthy ways.
Instead we’re taught inadvertently to buffer our feelings by adults, by our peers, by advertising.
We’re told we should “feel/think positive” all the time, and so when we don’t we assume something is wrong with us, and then we seek out false pleasure in the bottle.
Because we’re supposed to feel good all the time, right?
We’re humans who feel feelings. We’re conscious of feeling those feelings. It’s a blessing. Because we get to feel empathy, love, joy, but in turn we must also feel anger, sadness and anxiety.
It’s just how being human works and unless you’re a sociopath (who doesn’t feel anything), you’re going to have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Period.
So I’m going to share with you some ways to let yourself feel uncomfortable. Use these tools when you’re feeling an emotion that makes you want to drink:
- Journal: Get it all out on the page in a stream of consciousness. Rage against people in your life through your pen. Cry about the shit you’re going through. Tell the Universe (or God, or whatever), how fucking unfair it is that you have to deal with whatever it is you’re dealing with. Show up in all your anger/rage/pain/shame/guilt on the page. And don’t you dare censor yourself because you “shouldn’t think/feel/act like that” as a “good man/woman/God-fearing person/teacher/mother/father/grandma/life coach/etc.” All that is, is more shame you’re heaving onto your back (refer back to #5). You don’t have to carry that anymore.
- Meditate: As in, sit and observe your thoughts. What are you thinking that’s causing this emotion in you? What circumstance is leading you to want to drink? What’s triggering you to want to drink? Watch your mind, learn from yourself, BE CURIOUS, not judgmental.
- Walk/Run/Swim/Bike/Hike: Do something that’s halfway mindless, and again: watch your mind, your thoughts, your emotional reactions.
- Go for a drive and turn the music way up, play that song that makes you feel whatever it is you want to feel right now.
Lean into the discomfort, feel it, and let it out of your body instead of pushing it down with alcohol. It only gets worse the more you let that stuff build up.
7. Unfollow people that drink on social media
“No matter how much internal resolve you have, you will fail to change your life if you don’t change your environment” — Benjamin P. Hardy
Arguably one of the most important things I did for myself when I finally achieved 30 days of sobriety.
You see, it was really easy for me to justify drinking when the people I admired on Instagram drank. If I wanted their life, and they drank alcohol, then to me it was a permission slip to keep drinking.
I had to stop following and getting magazines from one of my favorite magazines, Imbibe, because they celebrate the exact culture and behavior that I was trying to avoid. The magazine made it ok for me to keep drinking.
Instead, follow people who are sober, who talk about sobriety and celebrate it. Here are a few of my faves:
- Hip Sobriety (the very first person I ever followed who openly celebrated sobriety. I had no idea that was a thing)
- Laura McKowen
- The Sober Glow (also follow Mia if you’re a lady like me who is growing out your gray hair)
- Sober Up Buttercup
- The Sober Hipster
- Sober Outside (for all your adventurous folk or are like ‘how the hell do I stay sober on vacation?!’)
- Krissy Mae Cagney (and Reps4Recovery) (for all you cross-fitter, gym types, or those who really love fitness and the outdoors or entrepreneurialism, Krissy is a serial entrepreneur who founded an amazing crossfit gym that gives a free membership to those in recovery)
Out of respect for my audience, you will NEVER again see a post from me on my Instagram that celebrates drinking. Just a little PSA, because I know how triggering that can be.
Check out this article I wrote about creating a supportive Instagram environment called Can’t Stick to Your Resolutions? Blame Your Instagram Feed.
8. Ask for help, tell people your story, stop suffering in silence
If you’re struggling, reach out. To me, to your friends, to your parents, to your partner, to your church, to a stranger on the internet, to online support networks like the Suicide Hotline 1–800–273–8255 or the emotional support hotline for situations that aren’t life threatening, but you need help navigating, click here for a list.
Connect with people on social media who are talking about the things you are having problems with. People email and message me directly all the time wanting to share their struggles with me, and I always respond.
By staying quiet, but not just saying plainly “I don’t think I want to drink anymore,” you are letting the issue fester and grow.
You’ve really got to ‘name it to tame it,’ and honestly, most people are kind and good and will lend a supporting and loving, non-judgmental shoulder to lean on. If they don’t, they aren’t your people.
Find your people. Talk to to them. Even if you think you’re not good enough to fit in with the people you want to be around, reach out to them. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by how good and kind people are.
9. Take your life, and your dreams, seriously
“When you quit drinking, you stop waiting” — Caroline Knapp
Alcohol lets us put off our dreams. It lets us save the work for another day, for later, for when we’re “more successful, have more money, or a better job.”
I finally got fed up with waiting, the pain of knowing how short my life is and not doing anything about it, got to be too much. So I stopped waiting and decided to stop drinking and find out who I was under all that buffering.
I can’t overstate how powerful this has been for me.
I went from spinning my wheels, wanting to start a business, wanting to write, wanting to take photos, wanting to travel to. . .quitting my job, moving to Costa Rica for 3 months, coming back home and writing, taking photos, getting paid for both of those things, discovering my passion for helping people, coaching people, and actively creating the life I want, instead of living the life I had been given.
Letting go of alcohol allowed me to live my life fully.
These things change my relationship with alcohol, and my relationship with my life. I did not go to AA or recovery, but I strongly encourage people to do so if it feels right. There is nothing shameful or small about needing that support to stop.
The time I fell down the stairs, I ended up severely bruising my rib and was unable to do the things I loved for 3 months. It was a serious turning point for me.
Your life doesn’t need to hit rock bottom for you to decide alcohol is no longer for you. You don’t need to slam into a set of stairs, or get put into rehab, or jail, or break the law in order to question your relationship with alcohol.
Start small, start today, stop judging yourself. You’re worthy, you’re enough.
Make massive change in your life by figuring out how you want it to FEEL every day. I created a 10 minute audio exercise to plug you into your authentic self, so you can start living the life you want today 👇